Planning, partnerships are keys to effective water management

Water users in Michigan can work together to reduce water use conflicts and share available water. Planning for future water availability can reduce the risks of conflicts and ensure that needs are consistent with the availability of water resources.

Property law provides the cornerstone for how Michigan manages water use. In Michigan, the rights to withdraw surface water or ground water are tied to land ownership, and each property owner has a legal right to reasonable uses of water. Conflicts that arise when a user’s withdrawal negatively affects the availability of water to another user have traditionally been settled through litigation. None of this has changed.

However, to bring the state’s program in line with the tenets of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact, how Michigan manages water use from another perspective has changed. What the compact and Michigan’s water use program make explicit is that in addition to conflicts between water users, conflicts can occur between human uses of water and ecological health. Changes in Michigan’s law are intended to reduce the likelihood of such conflicts.

Under Michigan law, water withdrawals may not pose unacceptable risks for water-dependent ecosystems; the health of such ecosystems is judged by the health of fish populations in affected water bodies. Proposed surface water or ground water withdrawals with a capacity of 100,000 gallons per day (gpd) or more are screened to ensure that they will not have unacceptable ecological impacts. Withdrawals that may pose such a risk are subjected to further review by technical experts. If a proposed withdrawal presents the potential for ecological harm as defined by state statute, it cannot go forward.

Under property law, every riparian has the legal right to a reasonable use of water, but from a regulatory perspective, using water cannot cause ecological harm. Is there a conflict between the goals of ensuring that individuals can exercise their water use rights and preventing ecological harm?

Michigan’s water use program provides two different routes to ensuring that both water rights and ecosystems are protected. First, Michigan’s regulations provide for negotiation among water users with the capacity to withdraw 100,000 gpd or more within identified watersheds. If total withdrawals in a given watershed must be reduced to make water available for a new user with rights under property law, users can negotiate among themselves the distribution of the available water.

Second, if existing water users are unable to agree on how to share available water so that a new user can exercise water use rights, the new user may resort to litigation in order to ensure protection of those rights — just like under Michigan’s pre-existing property law system.

Water users may also be called upon to negotiate reductions in withdrawals if for any reason the amount of water available becomes insufficient to support both existing users and ecological protection. In that case, users can attempt to negotiate the distribution of available water. If water users are unable to reach agreement among themselves, the state may seek to protect ecological health through litigation authority provided in the water use statute.

Because of these opportunities for collaborative management of water resources, water users may be well served to begin learning about their local water resources. Some watersheds in Michigan are facing greater water stress than others.

Especially in those areas, water users may want to begin thinking about and planning for future water management efforts. Good places to start looking for information on water resources include the Michigan Ground Water Inventory and Mapping Project, Michigan State University’s Institute of Water Research, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Water Use Program, and the U.S. Geological Survey Michigan Water Science Center.

Negotiation among large-quantity water users in the event of water scarcity is not the only route through which Michigan’s citizens may have a say in how water resources are shared in a given watershed. Local governments may want to consider how water planning can benefit future community and economic development initiatives.

Local planning and zoning officials, as well as economic development officers, can obtain water availability data against which the Master Plan and zoning map can be evaluated to look for incompatible planned development (for example, zones allowing rural subdivision developments that will rely upon private domestic wells for drinking water, but which fall mostly in local watersheds with little or no available water).

Michigan’s Water Withdrawal Assessment Tool is used to screen proposed withdrawals with a capacity of 100,000 gpd or more. It can also be used by planning and zoning officials to download water availability GIS data for use in their computer mapping systems or use the query and mapping functions built into the Tool to discover the spatial variation of the availability of surface water and groundwater in their area of jurisdiction. More information on Michigan’s water use program is available in the MSU Extension Bulletin WQ-60, Considering aquatic ecosystems: The basis for Michigan’s new Water Withdrawal Assessment Process.

These topics and other issues related to water and climate variability and change will be addressed as part of a series of five webinars on “Climate, Water, and Agriculture.” These free webinars run from 1 p.m to 2 p.m. on the following Fridays: March 9, 16, 23, 30 and April 13. Community and Social Considerations in Water Management will be held March 30. Registration is requested at http://bit.ly/climatewaterwebinar.